. . . You’d Be Home by Now

Auckland, New Zealand

Left: Auckland Triennial curator Hou Hanru. (Photo: Jade Lucas) Right: Volunteers for Peter Robinson's hikoi at Auckland Art Gallery. (Photo: John McIver)

AUCKLAND IS A WEIRD PLACE. It’s routinely identified as one of the most “livable” cities in the world, but it’s also characterized by crippling urban sprawl and prohibitive housing costs. The morning Hou Hanru’s iteration of the Auckland Triennial, “If you were to live here...,” opened to the public, the New Zealand Herald led with a story about the city’s housing bubble: In a few years, the average home, it predicted, will cost a million bucks ($800,000 USD). But Auckland is also energetic, hopeful, and increasingly shaped by a cultural mix of Maori, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and people of European descent that isn’t found anywhere else on the planet.

A place with huge aspirations but plenty of problems. Hou’s title gestured toward solutions while also slipping into the kind of catchall, speculative ambiguity that has defined the global curatorial zeitgeist for the past fifteen years. But despite its definitional fuzziness, “If you were to live here...” is a very good show, and a very good show for Auckland in particular: sophisticated, engaged, and marked at every turn by Hou’s pulling power. International participating artists include Anri Sala, Allora & Calzadilla, Michael Lin, Claire Fontaine, Yto Barrada, Shahzia Sikander, Ryoji Ikeda, and Allan Sekula. There was also a serious cohort of international curators in town—including Pascal Beausse, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Juliana Engberg—to see what Hou’s vision for Auckland looked like.

Most of New Zealand’s significant institutional art folk showed up too. Whether people liked what they saw or not, the important thing was that they were there. And it wasn’t just art-world insiders: Most of the openings were packed; the public program was well attended; and even after a full weekend, Hou’s floor talk at the Auckland Art Gallery (AAG) was crammed with people. It looked more like a student sit-in than a curator’s lecture. It seems Auckland was hungry for Hou and his semiutopian, internationalist vision.

Left: Sarat Maharaj. (Photo: Melissa Laing) Right: Auckland Art Gallery chief curator Zara Stanhope and artist Michael Lin. (Photo: John McIver)

New Zealand artist Peter Robinson kicked off the official proceedings. On Thursday afternoon, two hundred or so volunteers, mostly art students, gathered at AAG and each picked up one of Robinson’s “mood sticks.” The group then moved in a hikoi (a Maori word used to describe a collective journey, often associated with protest) across the central city to the Auckland Museum, where the sticks were left for staff to position throughout the museum’s collections, in places of their own choosing. Robinson’s gentle intervention, generosity, and blurring of boundaries between institutions set the overall tone for the triennial.

Sadly, that same spirit didn’t entirely carry through to that night’s official opening at AAG. There had already been grumblings about the invitations: strictly one admittance and two different entry times, a convoluted and strict protocol that prevented some people from showing up at all. A shame, as the collective feeling about the triennial was positive and the art in AAG was excellent, so it deserved a better party than it got. The invitations did nonetheless inspire the triennial’s funniest guerrilla gesture. On Thursday morning, a YouTube video based on Hitler’s ubiquitous bunker meltdown from Downfall started making the rounds. Granted, it’s been done before (and often), but the “Auckland Triennial” version, in which the FŘhrer loses it because he didn’t get an invite and couldn’t even go as someone’s date, was a riot.

Hitler finds out about the 5th Auckland Triennial opening.

Thankfully, this was a minor blip in the triennial celebrations. Friday saw a low-key breakfast opening for the Robinson and Siegel works at the Auckland Museum. The rest of the day was filled with high-quality panel discussions and artist talks, leading up to an excellent opening at Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT) St Paul St Gallery. The opening was ostensibly for triennial artists Sikander and Ho Tzu Nyen, but it also served as a prelude to the event’s keynote lecture. Professor Sarat Maharaj gave a paper titled “Know How & No How: thinking through art as knowledge production in a time of ‘Creativity Cholera’ ” to a reassuringly full lecture hall. Personally, I wasn’t convinced by Maharaj’s vision of the “global contemporary,” but the argument’s structural intelligence had to be admired.

Saturday provided no letup, with morning openings at Fresh Gallery in South Auckland (a venue that has raised the profiles of Auckland’s Pacific Islands artists), followed by a full program of talks at AAG. Official partner Artspace held an opening that night to celebrate its contributions to the triennial, which included great photographs from Yto Barrada and video work by Angelica Mesiti. Auckland’s art dealers, who play such a vital role in energizing the local scene, also joined in. True to the internationalism of the weekend, Michael Lett Gallery hosted a book launch for one of New Zealand’s most successful expatriate artists, Germany-based Michael Stevenson. And Starkwhite gave its space over to Brisbane-based curator Robert Leonard, who presented a fantastic show of Australian nerd art called “Bazinga!” Leonard, who will soon be returning to Wellington’s City Gallery, is the best New Zealand curator of his generation by some distance, and his show—noisy, obsessive, geeky, a little camp in places—was antithetical, or maybe even antidotal to Hou’s quieter approach. As if to hammer home the point, the opening ended with a live performance by the collective Botborg: a massive audiovisual feedback assault that drove plenty of people out of the gallery.

As the openings wound down, we all moved quickly to the packed club Galatos to witness an immersive, mesmerizing set by Ryoji Ikeda, one of the world’s best electronic artists. Even a fairly catastrophic technological failure halfway through couldn’t undermine the experience. Ikeda’s extraordinary electric surge did little to fill in the ellipses of Hou’s conditional phrase “If you were to live here…” But it was the first major event in the city in some time that made me feel very happy that I do.

Anthony Byrt

Left: Triennial project Kauri-Oke by Makeshift. (Photo: John McIver) Right: Botborg performs at Starkwhite. (Photo: Anthony Byrt)